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Power Struggles Stall Iraqi Provincial Councils

Times Staff Writer

As Iraq’s National Assembly gathers today to name a president after weeks of political squabbling, less publicized post-election battles are still raging at the local level in several of the nation’s 18 provinces.

In Najaf province, a power struggle between the outgoing governor and his successor has fueled armed clashes in recent weeks between two rival security forces.

Newly elected council members in Diyala province are afraid to gather for their first meeting, mindful that eight of their predecessors were assassinated, a council member said.

In northern Al Tamim province, home of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, newly elected Turkmens and Arabs are boycotting council meetings, claiming that the Kurdish majority is refusing to share power.

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And in the southern province of Basra, an ultra-conservative religious party that came in a distant second in the local election has won control of the council by forging alliances with other slates, sidelining the winner, which was one seat short of a majority.

“The councils are in a much bigger mess than the National Assembly,” said Kamil Chaderchi, deputy minister of public works and municipalities.

“And no one is paying attention.”

Difficulties and delays in getting the regional governments up and running could create new obstacles to plans -- endorsed by U.S. and Iraqi leaders -- to establish a federalist system based on strong local governments that reflect each province’s religious and ethnic makeup.

Complicating the efforts to establish a federalist system, the 275 members of the newly seated National Assembly do not represent specific districts or provinces, but were chosen in a nationwide ballot.

When assembly members convene today, they plan to name a president and two vice presidents. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani is widely expected to be chosen as president, and interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni Arab, and Finance Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shiite Muslim, are likely to be named vice presidents. This three-member presidency council is expected to name Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite, prime minister.

Although the seating of the presidency council should help bolster Iraq’s fledgling central government, it is unlikely to help quell the turmoil in the local councils.

Until the Jan. 30 election, the local councils had been staffed by U.S. appointees, who lacked significant authority and struggled to gain the public’s confidence. In a few cases, U.S. advisors inadvertently appointed former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, fueling distrust. It was hoped the elections would remedy such problems.

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Western diplomats in Baghdad acknowledge that the post-election transition got off to a rocky start, but they stressed that progress was being made.

“The local councils are facing many of the same issues that the National Assembly is facing, but in general the transition has gone pretty smoothly in most places,” said one Western diplomat familiar with the local councils, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

As of this week, nearly all the councils have held at least one meeting and most have settled on governors, Iraqi officials said. In some provinces, such as Nineveh and Al Tamim, the council reelected the governor, providing a sense of continuity.

However, in Najaf, U.S.-appointed Gov. Adnan Zurfi lost to an alliance backed by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, a leading Shiite party.

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After the election, Zurfi challenged the new council’s authority to replace him, leading to one of the ugliest provincial battles. The crisis escalated when armed units of a special emergency security force created by Zurfi began attacking the city’s police stations, destroying equipment and stealing weapons.

Two weeks ago, Zurfi accepted defeat and left the country for an extended break. But the rogue security force, led by Abdel Aal Kufi, refuses to accept the council’s legitimacy. Last week, Kufi’s forces raided another Najaf police station, engaging in an hour-long gun battle. No injuries were reported.

“I do not obey the orders of the new governor and his deputy,” Kufi said, adding that only the federal Ministry of Interior, which supervises Iraq’s security forces, had the power to dismiss him.

The newly elected council has issued formal orders to fire Kufi and the local police chief. A source said the council had also asked U.S. military leaders in Najaf to arrest Kufi.

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American forces in the city have stayed out of the conflict, though a local U.S. commander publicly said last week that the elected government was legitimate and that local security forces must obey the new governor.

Tensions have also risen in Al Tamim, where Kurds won nearly two-thirds of the seats on the council. Other ethnic groups are unhappy that the Kurds immediately began shaking things up, conducting their meetings in Kurdish and attempting to depose the previous council chief, a Turkmen.

There are fears of similar ethnic strife in the provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin, which includes Tikrit, Hussein’s birthplace. Sunni Arabs are thought to be the largest group in both provinces, but because many of them boycotted the elections, Shiites now dominate the councils and control the governorships.

Such situations could make it difficult for U.S. and Iraqi leaders to persuade Sunni Arabs that a federalist system is more fair than the type of strong central authority run by Hussein. Sunni Arabs are a minority in Iraq but enjoyed favored status under the former president.

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So far, officials say, the Shiite-controlled councils and Shiite governors have moved cautiously and attempted to share power with the Sunni Arabs, but it is unclear whether that will satisfy them.

“There is a defect in the representation in the council,” said Hafith Abdalaziz, a Sunni Arab who is the deputy governor of Diyala province.

One of the most surprising local power struggles is in Basra, where two rival Shiite parties are jockeying for control.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, long a dominant force in Iraq’s second-largest city, campaigned under the name Basra Islamic Alliance and won 20 of the 41 seats.

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The rival Al Fadila al Islamiya, or Islamic Virtue Party, linked to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, captured 12 seats.

But Al Fadila leaders quickly forged a coalition with three smaller parties, giving them a 21-20 edge and control of the council.

Though both are religious parties, Al Fadila’s brand of Shiite Islam is seen as more extreme. Clerics linked to Al Fadila are believed to have participated in a violent attack last month by Sadr followers on a group of male and female students enjoying a picnic together and listening to music, behavior that they called “immoral.”

Now, Al Fadila leader Mohammed Musabah Waily is the governor of Basra and SCIRI members complain that their suggestions are routinely ignored at council meetings and they’ve been passed over for senior leadership posts.

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“They marginalized us,” said council member Hakim Mayahi. “The competitive environment that prevailed during the election is continuing.”

Waily insisted that his Al Fadila party was governing fairly and openly.

“The council is removed from any partisan commitments and loyalties,” he said.

Political wrangling aside, there’s one issue nearly all local party officials agree upon: the need to extract more power and funding from the federal government.

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So far, local councils have been granted little authority beyond appointing the governor and a couple of other senior officials. The federal ministries control virtually all money for government salaries, schools, police and infrastructure projects.

The central government even plays an active role in hiring local police chiefs and heads of provincial agencies, such as local telecommunications and planning offices.

Under Hussein, power was centralized in Baghdad. American occupation leaders did little to expand local rights, in part out of fear that local parties or tribes would grow too powerful and attempt to break away from the rest of the country.

Now the central government in Baghdad is resisting attempts to loosen its grip on power.

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A proposed pilot program to permit a southern province to control its own budget and operations was squashed last month by the ministries of Finance and Planning, said Chaderchi, the deputy minister of public works and municipalities in Baghdad.

If local councils can set aside their differences, they say they’d like to join forces to lobby the federal government for stronger authority.

“Local councils are more knowledgeable about what’s going on in their area,” said Mayahi, of the Basra council. “They should be able to decide their own affairs by themselves.”

Special correspondents Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf, Othman Ghanim in Basra and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.

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